South Sudan at 10: What happened to our “freedom, justice, and equality”?
We have a saying that “if South Sudanese do not want to change, the change will change them”.
Ten years ago today, on 9 July 2011, I was in the capital Juba for the momentous occasion as South Sudan finally became independent. The hope and pride were palpable as we prepared for the birth of a nation that 2.5 million people had died for in a two-decade civil war and that 99% of the population had voted for months earlier. I will always cherish these memories.
In the following days, we settled into the reality of what it meant to be independent from Sudan. We were optimistic and looked forward to having our passport, banking system, and currency. Above all, we looked forward to freedom from oppression. At the same time, we reflected on the cost of liberation. In my family alone, we could count up to twenty relatives who died on the frontlines and many more who had succumbed to hunger, disease or displacement because of the war. Some had become child soldiers. Others missed out on education or lost their jobs and homes.
We were aware that we had lived to see a day that those before us only dreamt of and that those after us would read about in history books. Living through those times alone was a blessing from the Almighty God. After a monumental collective sacrifice inspired by the slogan of “freedom, justice, and equality”, South Sudan was free.
Expectations were high, and soon disappointed. Resources were diverted to unproductive uses such as the 2012 border war with Sudan and the purchase of arms. Some finances ended up in the hands of elites to buy personal assets such as foreign properties. Then, just two years after celebrating independence, the country turned to war with itself.
When fighting broke out on 15 December 2013 between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those allied with Vice-President Riek Machar, thousands of people fled to UN Protection of Civil Sites or across to neighbouring countries. I sheltered in my home on the outskirts of Juba and was soon joined by many more. Before I knew it, my compound went from hosting nine to 49 people. Several friends who live abroad urged me to leave the country, but I decided to stay and help others escape.
I nearly paid for that decision with my life. On the night of 17 December, a group of soldiers tried to attack our compound until one objected. We do not know who that man was, but he almost certainly saved our lives. Whoever he was, he became my hero and source of inspiration. If he could courageously stand his ground against his colleagues, the least I could do is use my own platform and resources to work for justice and advocate for peace.
I got a chance to do this during the peace talks in Addis Ababa. As chair of the Transitional Justice Working Group, I and other civil society leaders insisted that the fate of the country should not be left in the hands of fighting elites. We called for a voice for civil society and eventually contributed to the 2018 peace deal.
This agreement brought a much welcome reduction in fighting. Yet three years later, much of the deal is still to be implemented. This includes the chapter on security arrangements, which means we lack a unified army and other enforcement agencies. Moreover, several armed opposition groups have refused to sign the deal, adding to the chances of renewed insecurity.
Ten years after independence, it is difficult to see what became of our promise of “freedom, justice, and equality”. Tens of thousands of people are in camps for internally displaced people. Countless injustices have been perpetrated with impunity. More children are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance than ever. We have also seen the gap between the privileged and the poor widen, as some elites have reportedly stolen billions from the state as millions of their compatriots struggle for their daily bread.
On this tenth anniversary of independence, I hope to see South Sudan find its way back to peace and development so that the next generations will not have to with war. I would like to see our political leaders, especially President Kiir and First Vice-President Machar, implement the 2018 peace deal in letter and spirit. This will lead to a free and fair election by the end of the transitional period and the protection of other democratic processes.
It is difficult to predict how the next decade will unfold, but I remain optimistic because I know how the South Sudanese are a dynamic people existing in a changing world. The country itself is not unchangeable; nothing stays the same. We have a saying that “if South Sudanese do not want to change, the change will change them”.
Our expectations may have been disappointed in the last ten years, but we should not lose hope. We have achieved our freedom and we have met some challenges. We can draw strength from our past and keep developing our country by pushing for justice and peace. I’m sure that Dr. John Garang’, the founding father of this nation, and the rest of the martyrs who died to free our country are watching over us.